West Palm Beach's Living Landmark
If you are ever in West Palm Beach, Florida, make sure to take a historic walking tour of Worth Avenue with West Palm's only certified living landmark, James Ponce. Claiming a Florida ancestry dating back to Ponce de Leon, the 90 year-old Ponce arrives at Via Gucci (in West Palm Beach, luxury stores get streets named after them) resplendent in a blue blazer, straw Panama, waistcoat, and pearl tie pin.
Under a pencil-thin mustache, Ponce has a sweetly rolling Southern accent that one does not hear in the movies. His "war" is pronounced "whoa-uh." Taking us back more than a century, Ponce's tales quickly become spellbinding.
According to Ponce, oil and railroad baron Henry Flagler built a rail line down the East coast of Florida to West Palm Beach and, ultimately, Miami and the Keys, thus opening up this tropical land for sun-seeking vacationers. Flagler's Palm Beach Inn, built in 1896 and later renamed The Breakers, remains West Palm's landmark hotel. James Ponce is The Breakers' official historian.
Ponce then explains that, while Henry Flagler brought vacationers and residents to West Palm Beach, Addison Mizner created the city's Mediterranean Revival architectural style that has become emblematic of South Florida. Mizner was the son of a diplomat, and as a child traveled with his family to numerous countries. He was especially taken with the buildings in Spain and Central America, and developed a lifelong passion for architecture. In 1918, suffering some health problems, he arrived at Palm Beach for some r and r. His buddy, sewing machine company heir Paris Singer, encouraged Mizner to turn his architecture passion into a local profession.
Mizner embarked on a development binge that included West Palm Beach and Boca Raton to the South. Mizner meticulously stamped his Mediterranean influences on the buildings and homes in these areas, including Spanish tile roofs, towers, spiral staircases, and imported inlaid tile. In West Palm Beach, along Worth Avenue, Mizner created a miniature Venice. Instead of canals, Mizner set winding paved "vias." The most famous of these are Via Mizner and Via Parigi. These pedestrian vias were lined with homes above shops, carefully placed palm trees, archways, towers, gates, coats of arms, and open vistas above.
Millions of tourists walk through these vias each year, on the way to lunch or the next glitzy jewelry store along Worth Avenue. But taken at a relaxed pace, accompanied by James Ponce and the ghost of Addison Mizner, an important and influential piece of Florida history comes thrillingly alive.
photo by Florida Sun-Sentinel